Fishermen in battle for BP oil spill compensation

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The calls for more documents came day and night to the seafood dock just up the road from one of BP's main staging areas in its fight against the Gulf oil spill.

Some 400 pages of tax records and invoices later, the Vietnamese refugees who have been buying seafood from local fishing boats for 22 years got a letter saying their claim for compensation was denied.

"We didn't meet the criteria," Kim Vo said with disgust as she surveyed her dock and processing plant in Venice, Louisiana.

The April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon and unleashed 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil wreaked havoc on coastal communities as a third of the Gulf of Mexico's rich US waters were closed to fishing and fears of a black tide washed away tourists from Texas to Florida.

Nearly a year after BP vowed to make the people affected by the Gulf oil spill "whole" and created a 20-billion-dollar trust fund, its quasi-independent claims facility has paid 3.9 billion dollars to 177,000 claimants.

Almost all of that was in the form of emergency payments made shortly after the spill or to people who accepted a "quick-pay" settlement of 5,000 dollars for individuals or 25,000 dollars for businesses.

Those with more complex claims are, for the most part, still waiting for help. About 79,000 interim and final claims have not yet been processed and another 43,000 have been sent back with a request for more documents.

People here complain the system set up to avoid lengthy court battles is unfair and unresponsive and tens of thousands -- like Vo -- are turning to lawyers for help.

Much of their vitriol is aimed not at BP, but at Ken Feinberg -- the lawyer appointed to oversee the claims facility.

"I think right now he's in a process of starving people out, trying to get as many people to sign off on these waivers," said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

The waivers -- which prevent people from seeking further damages if they accept a final payment -- are what really worry fishermen and seafood dealers.

Feinberg commissioned a report to predict what kind of an impact the spill would have on Gulf fisheries and determined that the damage would be limited in scope.

So compensation was limited to twice 2010 losses -- except for oyster fishermen who get three times their proven losses because it will take their oyster beds more time to recover.

Fishermen fear that the spill -- and the nearly two million gallons of chemical dispersants used to keep the oil from reaching shore -- will cause long-term damage to the balance of life in the Gulf.

They point to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill where Alaska's herring fisheries looked fine for the first few years, then collapsed from disease and still haven't come back.

"I'd give back every penny if they'd give me my water back," said shrimper Dee Poche, who has received 13,000 dollars in emergency payments from BP and is still waiting for her interim claim to be processed.

"I was very happy, and to have it ripped away from you, it's like a part of your heart is dead."

Feinberg insists that his team of 30,000 people in 35 claims offices is moving as quickly as possible to resolve the claims. He admits that some people may have fallen through the cracks, but said "overall I think we're doing a good job."

One problem is that there are often "huge gaps" between what people think they should be paid and what they can actually show as damages, he said.

Another is that the claims process simply isn't able to help people with their intangible losses.

"The emotion associated with this goes way beyond a check or a calculation of damage," Feinberg told AFP.

"I can't change the future or the past. I cannot give you back your heritage... all I can do, and sometimes it's very minimal, is give you money."

Not everyone is unhappy with the way BP handled things. Plenty of people made a lot of money working in the massive response effort -- which cost BP 13.6 billion dollars -- or supplying food, gas and a place to stay to people who did.

"I think they did a good job," said John Clark, 26, who works for a charter fishing company out of the Venice marina and spent much of last summer on a cleanup crew.

"They kept us busy, they kept us working."

But for the tens of thousands of people struggling to pay the bills while they wait for compensation check, the emotional strain of the spill didn't end when the well was capped on July 15.

Kim Vo and her husband are counting on their savings and a bumper crop of shrimp this summer to keep the lights on at Sharko Seafood.

That's what they did after they had to rebuild from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region in 2005.

It took the federal government three years to send them a disaster relief check and they're still fighting with their insurance company over those damages.

Vo's worried it won't be that easy this time around.

"After the storm was over, it was 'okay, come back, clean up and lets go to work,'" she said.

"But now, we don't know what's out there."

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